Thursday, September 07, 2006


I like the original version with Gene Wilder. I also like, with reservations, the new version by Tim Burton, with Johnny Depp. I recently read the book for the first time. Below are some kind of random notes:

The first film can be seen as a precursor of the sort of film that has become very common: a family film that adults can enjoy as well. The story is intact, but there are odd little poisonous moments that the kiddies just can’t seem to appreciate. What is a child supposed to make of Wonka’s advice to Mike Teavee: “You should open your mouth a little wider when you speak” (a direct quote from Carroll’s Red Queen to Alice in Through the Looking Glass) or the quote from Arthur O'Shaughnessy “we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” And it isn’t just Wonka. Mrs. Teavee’s mis-identification of the tune on Wonka’s musical lock (Mozart, not Rachmaninoff) and the picture of Martin Bormann used to identify the Argentinian gambler who forged the last golden ticket are all out of place in an ordinary family movie.

Gene Wilder’s Wonka comes off as a weirdly charming mystery man. His first appearance is memorable, the halting walk with the cane and the sudden somersault show clearly that all is not as it seems. His excitement over Augustus Gloop's progress up the pipe is nothing short of sadistic, he pops candy into his mouth and quotes Oscar Wilde: "The suspense is terrible, I hope it will last." There's something harder to pinpoint, though, behind the jokes and veiled threats. A certain childlike quality, an excitement that pops up on occasion, as when he pauses before activating the Everlasting Gobstopper Maker to ask the kids, "Would you like to see?" He’s also certainly a grown up, as when he clearly rebukes Veruca when she claims that Violet has two of the eternal candies: “she has got one, and one is enough for anybody.”

Depp’s Wonka is a far weirder creation. His pageboy haircut and childish voice brought almost inevitable comparisons to Michael Jackson, which Depp denied, saying that he intended Wonka to be more of a kiddie-show host. And he’s right, upon repeat viewings Depp’s Wonka does seem to owe more to Fred Rogers, or more specifically, to a Robin Williams’ version of Fred Rogers than to Jackson.

The game:
The novel has no test for Charlie. It can be argued that no test is arranged for Charlie out of a lack of time: Charlie finds the ticket the day before the tour is scheduled to take place. But that's not much of an argument. There is no test specifically targeted at his weaknesses, because Charlie quite simply has none. He wins simply by showing up. He’s the last survivor of the tour, so he wins the prize, plain and simple. It is also shown very clearly and spelled out very specifically that the Buckets are in serious danger of literally starving to death. The novel is more concerned with setting up Charlie as a good kid, and then wiping out a bunch of rotten kids in entertaining ways. It almost came as a surprise to find myself thinking of the possibility of Charlie making it to the end simply by being more devious than the others, rather than more honest and decent and pure.

The first film adds the Everlasting Gobstopper gambit. Upon finding the Golden Tickets, a figure claiming to be Arthur Slugworth, a business rival of Wonka’s, appears to offer the children a deal: if the children smuggle an Everlasting Gobstopper out of Wonka’s factory and hand it over to him, they will get lots of money. The test seems aimed particularly at Charlie: the fake Slugworth promises lots of good food and comfort for Charlie and his family in return for the candy. Thus, when Charlie hands over the Gobstopper to Wonka at the end of Wonka’s frightening fake tirade, Charlie’s honesty is proven and he is worthy of winning the Great and Glorious Jackpot.

Burton’s film eliminates this particular gambit. As in the novel, Charlie wins the until-then secret Grand Prize (a trip in the Great Glass Elevator and the Factory itself), but he turns it down when Wonka won’t let Charlie’s family come with him. Some rather heavy-handed moralizing about the importance of family follows, and Charlie helps Wonka mend fences with his own father who has been shown in flashbacks to be a cold-hearted dentist who won’t allow the young Wonka to eat candy or pursue his dream of being a candy maker. After the reconciliation, we are told that Wonka repeats his offer, and Charlie says yes this time, on condition that his family comes with him, to which Wonka assents.

The final scene of the film is very curious: Wonka and Charlie arrive in the Bucket family home after a hard day’s work, Wonka is asked to stay for dinner, the table is spread with family dinner trimmings like turkey, side dishes, etc. The camera pulls back though a broken window, and it is revealed that the Bucket family home has been transported as is, holes in the wall and poor but honest squalor and apparently permanent winter intact, to the Chocolate Room in the Wonka Factory. This has always bothered me. Why the giant salt-shakers pouring snow over the house? Why is the great free-flowing chocolate river, a marvelous symbol of Wonka’s demented creativity, shown to be frozen over? Why are the Buckets kept living in that collapsing house? If Wonka can keep his factory extra warm for the Oompa Loompas, why does he make it cold for the Buckets? And where is Dr. Wonka in this sudden orgy of frozen domestication?

The problem is that the big Pro-Family message of the film has nothing to do with the film itself. Mike Teavee, Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt and even the apparently single-parented Violet Beauregard all come from families, too, and all are ghastly, largely because of the families they have who either encourage their worst qualities or do nothing to curtail them. Wonka’s own family life (elements of which are shoe-horned in to the plot solely to create a final reconciliation between father and son) has been a disaster.

That this works at all is largely due to the skill and warmth with which Burton has established that the Bucket family is a pretty cool bunch of people: Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham Carter manage to convey a real devotion to each other and to Charlie and to their parents, the grandparents who never leave their beds. These opening scenes of the Bucket family could be used to dispel any criticism of Burton’s skill with actors. The warmth and affection among the 7 members of the Bucket household are beautifully presented, without descending into Spielbergian Ickiness.

Credit must also go to Freddie Highmore, the frighteningly skilled young actor who plays Charlie. He is able to encourage sympathy without getting sticky, but even he can’t help sounding rather self-righteous and judgmental when he prattles on about his family and how they always make him feel better and all that.

I don't know if any of this really diminishes the film, or not. There's a lot to enjoy in Burton's film, but I don't think it comes near eclipsing the first version. I much prefer the simplicity of the original film's ending. When Wonka offers Charlie the warning about remembering what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted (he lived happily ever after, it turns out) I always get a little verklempt.

I like both movies. They've both got pros and cons. I'll always watch them. They're a permanent part of my library.

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